Monday, 2 December 2013

He is the walrus: how Leonid Kuchuk became Eastern Europe's most exciting coach

Leonid Kuchuk is not impressed

Leonid Kuchuk would be a perfect fit for English football, not just because of his attractive high-pressure, fast-attacking style, but because his surname would be perfect for any "I am the walrus" based chants.
A virtual unknown until this year but now coaching the Russian league leaders, Kuchuk is an unlikely sensation - after all, he's a 54-year-old Belarusian with the unsmiling face of a Soviet bureaucrat.
His gruff style was showcased in a side-of-the-pitch interview after going top of the league on Monday. Asked how it felt, he grunted: "It's too early to congratulate me, thank you very much," and walked off.
Still, none of this has stopped him taking Lokomotiv Moscow to the top of the league ahead of bigger-spending Zenit St. Petersburg, and putting another nail in the coffin of his once-hyped predecessor at Loko, Slaven Bilic.
Kuchuk has much the same squad that Bilic did when he took Loko to ninth last season and earned himself the sack. Defence and attack are unchanged, with only the arrival of Lassana Diarra and playmaker Mbark Boussoufa in midfield, both signed on the cheap amid the wreckage of Anzhi Makhachkala, and even then only after stalwart midfielder Denis Glushakov was sold to Spartak.
Kuchuk has turned Senegalese striker Dame N'Doye into a goal machine up front, a necessary step when the rest of his strikeforce consists of the overpaid and under-motivated Roman Pavlyuchenko, Felipe Caicedo and Victor Obinna, English Premier League dead wood all.
The biggest transformation has been to Brazilian winger Maicon, who won the under-20 World Cup with Brazil  in 2010 but whose early promise looked lost after two ineffectual seasons at Loko under Bilic and Jose Couceiro. Now, he is a revelation, his game more focused on slicing in from wide with perfectly-timed high-speed runs. Under Bilic, he mostly just chased the ball.
In defence, Spurs cast-off Vedran Corluka has become a reliable presence rather than a liability, while midfielder Alexander Samedov, whose set-pieces were a rare bright point in the Bilic regime, remains as good as ever.
Kuchuk didn't just coast into Lokomotiv, however. He turned up in Russia in January after last season's surprise package FC Kuban fell out with their abrasive coach Yuri Krasnozhan. Set the task of keeping Kuban on track for a first-ever European campaign, he did just that.
At the time, Kuchuk seemed like a stop-gap, a man who seemed to have got the job through Kuban's notorious links with agents. After all, he'd hardly been setting the world alight with Arsenal Kiev, and while he did have six Moldovan titles to his name, those were earned in a division about as competitive as the midfield battles in Paul Scholes' Sunday League matches.
Come the summer, Kuchuk just stopped answering Kuban management's phone calls, telling them he'd gone on holiday and didn't want to be disturbed. In reality, he was busy in talks with Lokomotiv, a club desperate for the known quantity of a Russian-speaking coach after the costly Bilic failure.
Now it's December, almost a year after Kuchuk's low-profile arrival in Russia and he's ruling the roost. Fittingly, his team took the league lead with a commanding 3-1 win over Kuban, now managed by Victor Goncharenko, the 36-year-old who took Europe by storm when his BATE Borisov side beat Bayern last year in the Champions League.
But he's not the rising star now. No, strange as it may seem, Leonid is the Walrus. Kuchuk-Kuchuk!